Saturday, August 9, 2014

175. Buzz Arlett: Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues

This past Monday (which also happened to be my 44th birthday) I sent off the completed manuscript of my book to Simon & Schuster. It's titled "The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" and is already up on Amazon, which was a neat feeling to see for the first time. 

Despite the relief and joy I had bundling the 270 page book off to the publisher, I had a small tinge of sadness at the same time. I've worked non-stop for almost 5 months on this book, trying to make it the greatest project of my 30 year career as a professional artist. It's going to be bittersweet waking up next week and knowing that I wasn't going to be drawing or writing about baseball all day. There's also that piece of me that wanted to call my father up as soon as I sent the final book out on Monday, but as you all know, he passed away four years ago, and this book and the blog that preceded it, came about through my missing him. While I wish he was around for me to throw a real copy of the book at him when it comes out next year, I know he'll be around watching.

One of the hardest things about finishing the book was that I had in excess of 100 pages and 65 illustrations that I had to chop from the final manuscript. You have no idea how tough that was to have to decide who to keep and who to cut! It was especially tough when it came to guys like Buzz Arlett. This fella was part of a chapter I entitled "The Babe Ruths" which featured all the players who at one time or another was named after the greatest player of them all. Buzz was one a few ballplayers who were dubbed "The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues" - two others that were in that chapter was Ollie Carnegie and Nick Cullop. I had to drop the whole chapter, but managed to put a few of the players into other chapters. I had to choose between Cullop, Arlett and Carnegie. It was a hard choice, each had a great story. Since I already featured Cullop on my blog, I decided to drop him, which left Carnegie and Arlett. Buzz Arlett had made it to the majors, all be it for a brief time, but Carnegie had never made The Show. For some reason I felt bad for Ollie, and couldn't bring myself to leave him behind again. He got the call for the book and I cut poor ol' Buzz. In a way it worked out all right, I had a hard time trying to choose which illustration to choose for Buzz, the home white Oakland Oaks uniform or the navy blue road. I figured I'd share both, along with the story that didn't make the cut.

Today there would never be a “Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”. Once a player becomes a star in AA or AAA he’s called up before too long. With larger rosters and the American League’s designated hitter position, players that were once passed over because of poor fielding or age now can find a place. However, back in the 1920’s and 30’s it was a different game and many guys like Buzz Arlett were doomed to spend their career just shy of the big time, remembered only as “The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues”.

 In 1918, teenager Russell Arlett followed his big brother Alex to the Oakland Oaks spring training camp. After a series of injuries depleted the Oaks pitching staff, the kid brother was pressed into service. The 6’-3” 220lbs lug turned out to be a whizz-bang right hander. He soon got the nickname “Buzz” from the way he sawed through the opposing Pacific Coast League lineups.

From 1918 to 1922 Buzz won 99 games including one season of 29 wins. The Cincinnati Reds were on the verge of buying the big righty but a couple of things troubled them. The first was Buzz’s reputation of running out of “fight” whenever a game was out of reach or when playing for a lousy team. The big guy also had a bit of a temper. It was a good thing the Reds waited, for by 1922 his arm was fried.

Since he was already known as a good hitting pitcher, the Oaks kept his bat in the line up by converting him to an outfielder. He taught himself to hit left handed to let his arm heal and soon exploded with tremendous power from both sides of the plate.

Buzz was a fan favorite with rugged movie star looks and his Ruthian home runs made him the premier ballplayer on the West Coast. The Oakland front office realized his tremendous drawing power and were reluctant to let him go cheap. With a $75,000 price tag keeping Major League owners at bay, Buzz continued to hit home runs.

From 1924 to 1930 Arlett hit 153 home runs with a .354 average and the majors took notice. But despite his drawing power and home runs, the big league scouts recognized the same things the Reds back in 1921, plus a new, more troubling flaw - his fielding, while not horrible by Pacific Coast League standards, wasn’t near major league quality. Still, all those home runs...

 Brooklyn almost had pen to paper in 1930 but Buzz’s temper got the best of him and an umpire clobbered him with his face mask. When the dust settled Buzz found himself with a dozen stitches, a lengthy suspension and still in the minor leagues. As his thirtieth birthday came and went, the Oaks began to lower his price.

Finally in 1931, at the age of 32 he made the majors with the last place Philadelphia Phillies. For a short while it looked as if he was going to live up to the Babe Ruth moniker, but as summer wore on Buzz’s age began to show. His lackluster approach to fielding might have been endearing in the minors, but major league base runners were trained to take advantage of such things, and by August he riding the pines. The Phillies tried to keep his bat in the line up by using him as a pinch hitter, but even though he hit well off the bench, it didn’t make up for his fielding. At the end of the season he was back in the minor leagues.

Buzz’s 1933 season with the Baltimore Orioles was even more spectacular than his Oakland days. He finished the year with 54 home runs including an incredible pair of 4 home run games. Still, no major league team called even after he hit 39 homers in 1934. By now Buzz was 35 and nearing the end of the line. He had one last gasp with 43 homers for Minneapolis and three years later he was out of the game. In a 17 year career (13 as a full-time position player) Buzz hit 432 home runs, a minor league record that stood until Hector Espino surpassed it almost 40 years later.

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